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Mark Schlabach covers college football for ESPN.com and also reports on CSS. A UGA graduate, he is biased SEC to the point of ignorance and annoyance. The other night on TV, he made a comment that from top to bottom, "the ACC was just pretty mediocre." Well, this article isn't about Schlabach's sorry narrow-minded rear-end, but rather about the state of ACC football, and just how mediocre (or opposite of) it is.
The ACC has taken heat the last couple of seasons for being weak (Heck, even on this website, we have a member whose handle is "ACCisWeak"), earning this image by losing many key out-of-conference games a year ago and early this season, and performing poorly in the BCS since its 2005 expansion. But despite the black-eye the ACC earned, it appears to be showing signs of life. While no team in the conference sits above number 16 (FSU) in the sagarin ratings, no team lies below number 54 (Duke), either. Just for the record, and I know this is a stretch, Sagarin also has the ACC rated number 1 of the 6 conferences because of that balance. This weekend, four head to head match-ups with neighboring SEC foes (arguably the top conference), will be an early gauge to see if the conference is improving or just treading water.
In the coming weeks, the ACC will know whether or not it has made any progress this season. Besides the 4 games this weekend vs the SEC, the bowl games are just around the corner, and 7 ACC teams should be participating in those. The games this season have been both good and bad for the league, but the "worst of the big six" label, I believe, is gone. After a season of football has been played, the Big East and Pac-10 should be considered weaker than the ACC, and the Big-10 is questionable.
The Big East is the weakest. Period. The league has not only lost the most head to head matchups with any of the six major conferences, but, like the ACC, has no national contender. The Big-10 and Pac-10 each have national top 10 teams, but fall off drastically after that. Ohio State, Penn State and Southern Cal keep those leagues names in the news, but the football after those teams is pretty average at best. The SEC and Big-12 are 1-2 or 2-1 (depending who you are a fan of), because both leagues have multiple national contenders, and strong teams from there down, as well.
Here are a few facts about the ACC this season:
* The ACC is 29-11 on the year against out of conference teams overall.
* The ACC is 12-6 against big 6 conference teams.
* The ACC is 4-3 against the SEC so far (and that record includes games from alabama and florida, the top two teams in the SEC, and games from duke, wake and nc state, three of the bottom ACC teams )
I'm not goin to sit here and say that the ACC is as good as the Big-12 or the SEC. Quite frankly, I still think the conference has a ways to go. But it doesn't have as far to go as folks want to easily say. The league is short on quarterbacks right now, but high on solid new head coaches: Butch Davis at UNC is quickly bringing fans from the Dean Dome over to Kenan Stadium, Paul Johnson has Georgia Tech rolling in year one, and Tom' Obrien has NC State gelling as his second season comes to a close. Jimbo Fisher wil be guiding the 'Noles in the coming years when Bobby steps down, and Clemson is on the verge of making a hire, though nobody has the slightest clue who. With the right coach, the Tigers could be a factor immediatly, and AD Terry Don Phillips has a history of strong hires.
The top teams in the league - VT, FSU, Miami - are "down", but all three are showing very positive signs. If one of these, or UNC, GT, or maybe even Clemson were to become a national factor in 2009, the league's image would be once again shiny. But the 2009 pre-season rankings (which we all sadly know actually play a factor in BCS rankings later on) will be determined largely on what goes down in the coming weekend and bowl games ahead here in 2008.
Do I think the ACC will get to the top level? Yes. How many years will it take? I don't know. But I think it is less than many folks realize. One or two big wins can go a very long way. One or two big out of conference wins will have people take notice. And those chances are coming up now. Here are the four Saturday games for this weekend:
Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: Wake Forest has had a down season, but is looking to go 2-0 vs the SEC. The Deacons defeated Ole Miss earlier in the season. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is having one of its best seasons of all-time, going bowling for the firsttime in nearly thirty years. This will be a good game, but I think Wake Forest and Riley Skinner get the W. Wake (ACC) 28-20.
Florida at Florida State: There is no doubt that the Gators are one of the top teams in America this season. With weapons galore, they are a strong choice to make the national championship game. And no one is giving FSU a shot in the world against the Gators. But with home-field inspiration, and athletes that can match Florida, I think FSU makes a good showing. Do they win? Probably not. Is it a good game? You bet your ass. UF (SEC), 35-24.
South Carolina at Clemson: The Tigers have a soap opera of epical proportions going on right now with an interim head coach and a team that came into the season ranked 9th nationally has now lost 5 games. South Carolina is bowl-eligible but has question marks at quarterback. Both teams have solid defense, the Cocks d rated just a bit higher. Something strange will happen, and 90 percent chance of rain makes this one uncallable. Toss Up.
Georgia Tech at Georgia: If this game were played in September, when UGA was number 1 in America, I would have said Georgia runs 'em out of the Peach State. But now, a season of ball later, I think this is a 4-quarter game. Paul Johnson's offense is as tricky to defend as any I have seen, and UGA has let a big-season fall through the cracks once again. Toss up.
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